Tonight my hometown team, the Boston Red Sox, reached 100 wins for the first time since 1946 – with 16 left to play. It brought to mind one of my favorite books about Boston, which is Howard Bryant’s Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston. One of the most interesting things in the book is how he traces the success and failure of the team in the post-integration period to the presence or absence of General Managers who were willing to push back against the chronic racism of the Yawkey family ownership by building teams that were racially diverse. The 1967 “Impossible Dream” season and the 1976 – 1978 teams are held up as examples of success through bringing in more black players, whereas by contrast much of the hapless record of failure between 1946 and 2004 is carefully traced to specific decisions to move in the opposite direction. The most famous examples are the failed opportunities to sign Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays, but more recently, the racism the team displayed during the post-1979 free agent era is shown to be a major factor in their World Series drought. In an era when players and teams had more free choice about the movement of labor, the Red Sox and star black free agents avoided each other like the plague. (Only 2 black players between ’79 and ’84, for example.) The Red Sox did not sign a major free agent of color until Dan Duquette signed Manny Ramirez (and traded for Pedro Martinez), and the book quotes figures like Dave Winfield on why they would have never considered going to Boston as free agents.
So it seems consistent with this pattern that the team has returned to the 100 win plateau for the first time in 72 years with Alex Cora at the helm. It’s the first time the team has had a person of color as a manager – and they are almost certain to break the all-time team record for wins. As Bryant notes in the above video, the team has been built more around Latin American ballplayers than African American players after the Yawkey ownership group sold the team to John Henry in 2004. (Of course, many of those players are black, most famously David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, and Pedro Martinez.) Cora’s hiring is consistent with this pattern. But in an era when so many of the greatest stars are from Latin America, or have family roots in Latin America, this means something different than it would have in 1967 or 1976. Having a bilingual manager in today’s game must be a huge advantage. Cora makes his offseason home in Puerto Rico, where he was raised. Puerto Rico, of course, is a colony of the United States that suffered terribly at the hands of US racism and so is more directly connected to the ongoing struggles over US white supremacy than other parts of Latin America – though the distinction is perhaps more formal that substantive. And the team’s – and perhaps the league’s – best player is the homegrown African American superstar Mookie Betts, with David Price having a great stretch run too, pitching 7 shutout innings in tonight’s victory, Jackie Bradley Jr. patrolling center field, etc.
I remember in the pre-2004 era endless self-pitying tomes of trash by boneheads like Dan Shaughnessy* about the so-called Curse of the Bambino, with lots of folk lore style mumbo jumbo trying to explain MLB’s longest World Series drought. Bryant’s book reveals all of those endless hours of self pitying civic hot air to be yet another exercise in human projection and denial of the patently obvious. The team had a horribly racist owner and culture that caused chronic failure after major league baseball was integrated. As soon as they sold the team, the “Curse” ended. And now that the change has come to the manager’s office, they’re having their best season ever. The irony is the part of the fan base that never wanted any of those changes to happen will be cheering just as hard as the rest of us. Kinda like they might end up reluctantly cheering if someday the US could overcome the racist roots of its opposition to single payer or appropriately regulated health care systems and we could all afford to see a doctor whenever we needed one.
*who wrote earlier this summer that David Price’s recent excellence shows that “He has been the pitcher the Red Sox thought they were buying in 2015.” Not signing – buying.